Kit Vincent was 24 when he had his first seizure. Its cause, doctors told him, was a brain tumour, and it was terminal; Kit was given four to eight years to live. Upon hearing this news, right there in the hospital, his dad had a heart attack. “There were ten doctors around him, my mum was screaming,” Kit narrates with a chuckle. “I just kept thinking back to that day, and I was like, why wasn't I filming that?”
Kit's determination to film everything, no matter how painful or scary, is the backbone of this wonderfully intimate documentary. Red Herring sees the first-time filmmaker train his camera on the three most important people in his life — his father Lawrence, his mother Julie, and his girlfriend Isobel — in an attempt to explore how they're dealing (or not dealing) with the diagnosis. Inevitably, the process also results in a self-portrait of its director as he tries to figure out what sort of legacy he wants to leave behind.
What's remarkable about Red Herring is its ability to infuse humour into such tough subject matter. For large parts of its runtime the film plays like a comedy, owing both to Kit's playful approach to interview and narration, and to the central presence of his affable father. The film finds comic absurdity and poignance in equal measure in Lawrence's growing list of new hobbies, which range from painting and birdwatching to growing weed in his greenhouse and studying the Torah. They might all, of course, be seen as rather transparent means of distraction from the painful reality of Kit's condition, though the film lets us feel just how important to Lawrence the sense of ritual and community they engender are.
Julie, Kit's mother, is a completely different story. A palpable distance had emerged between mother and son before the film was made; despite regularly facing the realities of caring for the terminally ill in her job as a nurse, Julie struggles to come to terms with the prospect of losing her own son, leaving Kit longing for the maternal support he craves. As the documentary unfolds, one of its more gratifying aspects is witnessing the gradual development of a mutual understanding between them; it's hard-earned, and all the more honest and cathartic for it.
That this is all being filmed does, admittedly, add another layer of complexity to an already fraught family dynamic. Kit's often darkly funny openness — in one scene, he teases an unreceptive Isobel whether she'll get a new boyfriend after he dies — strains his family's ability to cope. It's to the director's credit that he includes the many moments of frustration and pushback. Isobel struggles the most with Kit's incessant filming, prompting her to question why he finds it so difficult to discuss his condition unless playing the role of documentarian. Later, when the camera is finally turned on Kit, he becomes evasive, hiding his face behind his hands.
Throughout, the filmmakers maintain a total grip on tone, expertly guiding the audience through the emotional highs and lows of Kit's journey. Editors Hattie Brooks-Ward and David Higgs demonstrate remarkable skill in balancing these moments, as does a warm and accomplished score (with original songs) by Xav Clarke, which recalls the soundtracks of Jon Brion. Ultimately, though, this is Kit Vincent's film through and through, a testament to deeply personal filmmaking both as therapy and for its own sake, heartwarming without resorting to trite sentimentality — in short, a really, really special film.
Red Herring screened at Sheffield DocFest 2023